Minister of Communications Dina Pule told parliament on Tuesday (8 May 2012) that the Department of Communications (DoC) commits to finalising the policy direction on high-demand spectrum in this current financial year.
“We are acutely aware of the interconnectedness of broadband and the licensing of radio frequency spectrum, which is a scarce natural resource,” Pule told Parliament.
Government’s current financial year (2012/2013) ends on 31 March 2013, but Pule previously told the media that they were aiming to publish the policy in May 2012.
Although there is a difference between providing parliament a commitment and offering journalists an internal goal date, a March 2013 deadline is simply not ambitious enough.
This statement from Pule is a stark contrast to the administration of her predecessor, the late Roy Padayachie, who seemed to set deadlines that were far too ambitious.
Under Padayachie the DoC and the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) missed many a deadline, but one did get a sense of urgency from the Minister.
Swinging from one end of the scale of ambition to the other does not bode well for the future of South African mobile broadband.
Consider that the policy directive the Ministry of Communications needs to issue is but the first step in getting much-needed spectrum in the hands of South Africa’s telecoms industry players.
Only after the policy directive has been published in the Government Gazette can ICASA restart the regulatory process, which includes the Invitation to Apply (ITA) for the spectrum in question.
Based on the stop-start history of these spectrum assignment plans, which goes back as far as 2006, this ITA isn’t expected to go off without its fair share of debate either.
Already South Africa’s mobile network operators have responded negatively to ICASA’s most recent ITA which the regulator issued towards the end of 2011.
Should the Minister therefore decide to use the ample time she afforded herself in the presentation to Parliament, it would be a tremendous setback for South Africa’s broadband landscape.
There is still much that needs to be sorted out before the deployment of Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology can begin in earnest in South Africa.
Any delays in getting the spectrum assignment process started, whether caused by the DoC, ICASA, or the operators themselves, will result in South Africa slipping further down the global telecommunications curve.